By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legislation to help young "Dreamer" immigrants struggled to gain footing in the U.S. Congress on Monday, but there were no signs yet that failure to pass such a bill would trigger a rerun of January's three-day partial government shutdown.
A months-long battle to give permanent protections to Dreamers, who were brought illegally into the United States years ago when they were children, got a boost with the unveiling of a new bipartisan bill in the Senate.
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Republican President Donald Trump appeared to dismiss it immediately, saying any deal should provide funding for his long-promised Mexican border wall. But the legislation did win the backing of a Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, who has been central to the fight for Dreamers.
A broader bill by Durbin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was rejected by the White House last month.
Lawmakers on Monday rushed to write a stopgap spending bill so that Washington does not have to shutter agencies across the country when existing money runs out on Thursday.
Congress' failure to reach an immigration deal delayed passage of a temporary spending bill in mid-January, triggering the three-day shutdown. This time around, there was none of the saber rattling that pointed to a second interruption in government services this year.
Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Chris Coons offered their bipartisan compromise on immigration on Monday. Similar legislation has already gained some traction in the House of Representatives.
Besides protecting Dreamers from deportation, it would boost security on the Mexican border.
In a tweet, Trump said any deal should provide funding for his long-promised Mexican border wall, and blamed Democrats for the impasse over immigration.
The McCain-Coons plan is narrower in scope than a plan Trump put forward last month, which was resisted by both hard-line Republicans and Democrats.
It does not offer a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system and does not include funding for the wall, but calls for a way for Dreamers to avoid deportation and earn citizenship, while also bolstering border security.
The legislation would rely on a variety of tools, not just a physical wall, for securing the southern U.S. border.
Around 700,000 Dreamers stand to lose temporary protections that have allowed them to work and study in the United States without fear of deportation.
This latest initiative, like some others already floated, would protect the 700,000, while also allowing hundreds of thousands of additional young immigrants in similar situations to apply for temporary legal status that could lead to U.S. citizenship.
Most immigrated from Mexico and Central American countries.
"The bill ... does address the two most pressing problems we face: protecting DACA recipients and securing the border," Coons said in a joint statement with McCain.
The Dreamers were previously protected from deportation under Democratic former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
DACA had been set to expire on March 5 after Trump canceled the program last fall and asked Congress to come up with a legislative solution by this date. But a federal court last month blocked the Trump administration from ending the program, and the administration's appeal is now pending before the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers have been struggling to reach a deal on an immigration bill, despite broad public support for helping Dreamers.
The last major legislative push, in 2013-14, failed when House Republicans refused to consider a broad, bipartisan measure passed by the Senate.
During a conference call with reporters, Coons said he was alarmed to hear some senators now talking about simply putting off long-term decisions about Dreamers for a year and making some "modest investments" in additional border security.
Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration policy along with other panels, also said that despite Trump's insistence on building a wall, border law enforcement officials in a recent briefing for senators did not make such a request.
"It was clear they are not embracing the notion of a single concrete wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific" Ocean, Coons said. Instead, he said administration officials spoke of the need to repair and upgrade existing fencing, build additional barriers and make other improvements.
Trump has said that any immigration deal must include billions of dollars to build the border wall. At the same time, he has given mixed messages about the future of the hundreds of thousands of DACA participants.
"Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time. March 5th is rapidly approaching and the Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!" the president said in a tweet on Monday.
While the McCain-Coons plan does not include funding for the border wall, Coons said on Monday he thought there was still enough support among both Democrats and Republicans to pass the legislation, noting that the House bill has attracted 27 Republican and another 27 Democratic lawmakers co-sponsoring it.
Trump could veto legislation that he deemed unacceptable if it were passed by both chambers of Congress. That would likely ignite a congressional battle over whether to overturn his veto.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; editing by Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)